Everywhere you look in sports these days, concussions are an intense focus of debate. Much of the talk about the 2010 NFL season centred around the league's efforts to reduce concussions, which led to plenty of fines and debate over just what should be allowed. Despite all that, the list of players who sustained a reported concussion in 2010 is frighteningly long, and eight weeks into the season, reported concussions occurred at a rate 21 per cent higher than in 2009.
The concussion debate is raging in the NHL as well, thanks to a widely-despised hit from Zdeno Chara on Max Pacioretty, some rather uninformed comments from Mark Recchi about that hit, discipline decisions that have spread wide distrust of the league and continually dangerous play from the likes of Matt Cooke. As Buzzing The Net's Neate Sager pointed out in an excellent piece yesterday, things may be even worse in junior hockey. Even baseball isn't immune, with Canadians Justin Morneau and Jason Bay still struggling to come back from concussions.
Despite the widespread sports focus on concussions and their effects, they still aren't widely discussed around the CFL. Yes, the league has some rules in place to prevent certain types of dangerous hits, and broadcasters are taking more notice of potential concussions; there's even work being done on advanced helmet models that could help reduce the impact of concussions, and former players have donated their brains to improve concussion research. All of these things are good steps, but despite frightening injuries to star players like Cory Boyd, there still seems to be a large sense that concussions only tangentially impact the CFL. Hopefully, stories like Drew Edwards' great piece on Adam Nicholson (pictured above being helped off the field after suffering a concussion in a June 13 game against Toronto) will be part of changing that perception.
Nicolson may be one of the key cases for the impact of concussions in the CFL and just how much damage they can do to players' lives and careers. He had a stellar CIS career with the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and was chosen eighth overall by B.C. in the 2007 CFL draft; at the time, there was every chance he could become one of the top Canadian receivers in the league. He ran into injuries early and often though, as well as issues with drops, and had difficulty cracking the lineup in both B.C. and Saskatchewan. He seemed to finally have a chance to prove himself after a trade to Hamilton before last season, but suffered the above-pictured concussion in the team's first pre-season game. Here's what Nicolson told Edwards about that first concussion:
"I got hit head-to-head and it was a bad collision. My helmet flew off and I think I got hit without a helmet so it was a bad one," Nicolson says. "I was unconscious for a few seconds and that's the first time that'd ever happened to me. It was a little scary.
Nicolson came back for a July 22 game, but took another hit to the head two weeks later. That one knocked him out for the rest of the season, although he was able to return to practice late in the year. He's a free agent now, and it seems the Tiger-Cats aren't going to offer him a contract; the question is if any other team will take a chance on him. It seems likely that may not happen, as while Nicolson has always had plenty of potential, he's only recorded seven career catches over four CFL seasons, and his concussion issues may pose a substantial red flag for interested teams. Thus, his CFL career could be done at the age of 26, and if it is, concussions are likely the primary reason why.
The Nicolson case may not resonate with everyone, as he's far from the most well-known CFL player out there. However, he's also far from the only CFL player who's dealt with concussions and their effects over the years; everyone from Jay Roberts to Jerry Campbell to Bobby Kuntz to Matt Dunigan to Dave Dickenson to Cory Boyd has publicly battled the consequences of head injuries, and there are undoubtedly more playes out there whose struggles fly under the radar. Often some of the worst issues often don't show up until after playing careers are finished, though, which makes Nicolson's issues particularly notable. If he's able to bounce back, catch on with another team and have a successful CFL career, that's fantastic. If not, though, his career should be remembered for more than just his potential and his limited on-field production, but also as a warning of the dangers of concussions and how seriously they need to be taken.